The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity. The history of the church being co-opted keeps repeating itself.
Way back in 1990 I had the amazing privilege to travel to Honduras and El Salvador with MCC where I met some Jesus followers who were hard to co-opt. It was the first of several immersion trips that have changed and enriched my life. The visit took place two years before the civil war in El Salvador (1969-92) officially ended, and ten years after Oscar Romero was martyred. It was less than a year after six Jesuit priests were murdered for speaking out against the government of El Salvador and advocating for the poor.
On the trip I met the seventh priest, Jon Sobrino, who had been teaching missionary students in Thailand about liberation theology when his housemates and caretakers were attacked and killed. He was gracious, sober, and still grieving the loss. When he heard we were Americans, before long he said, “I can never go there again.” He had recently been interviewed on U.S. TV about the scandalous actions of the death squad. “It is too, debilitating, too tempting” he said, or something to that effect. “It is a spiritual desert which thinks it is an oasis.” Sobrino could not be co-opted by the media machine, or wealthy donors, or the colossally power. But people tried to exploit him for his story, to reduce his suffering to “news.”
Ever since then, he has been an inspiration for soul-keeping for me, as in “What does it profit you to gain the whole world, at the cost of your soul?” I wish for you the same conviction and courage Sobrino continues to display.
In the history of Christianity, it is amazing how the best people are often co-opted by the established powers: the government, the media, corporations, the church, etc. They lose the battle Sobrino has regularly won. They bend their freedom to the rules. They dim their inspiration for the fearful. They lose their courage in the face of the gullible herd. They let their joy be stolen and their best selves conformed and compromised. Or they just get rolled over, as many would say is just what happened to Jesus.
I’m especially thinking of two of my favorite examples from the past: Teresa of Kolkata and Francis of Assisi. I’ll mention the Evangelicals, too. The movement Francis led (d. 1226 at the beginning of European capitalism) is quickly taken over and neutered by the church even before he dies. Teresa (d. 1997 during the flowering of neoliberalism) is boxed like another brand by the media machine and I think the exposure dims her light. The American Evangelical church plummeted in influence and authority when it was co-opted by the empire’s ways and means, especially during the pandemic. It’s division into “left” and “right” has to be one of the main reasons there are more “nones” than white Evangelicals for he first time this year.
Mother Teresa’s media presence was wildly successful in raising consciousness and funding her work. But I still wonder if her conversion of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was also a means of him converting her, too. His book Something Beautiful for God (1971) still sells over 100 copies a month in its “beatification edition” from 2003! He was a boon to her and she to him, as far as making money goes.
I love how she gets her message out. But I wonder what the screen is doing to her: the faux intimacy, the chattiness, the objectification and reductionism. Perhaps her faith transcends the screen. Or maybe the screen reduces it to another story in its world of truthiness. Here is an example of her on screen with Muggeridge from 1971. [link]
In 1266, a generation after St. Francis died, the general chapter meeting in Paris ordered Franciscans everywhere to destroy their writings about Francis written before the minister general’s, that is Bonaventure’s, new biography was published. It was a breathtaking attempt to “control the narrative.” Twenty years earlier, the chapter had asked people who had known Francis to write down all their memories, which they did, copies of which survived the purge. These surviving records are what Jean Paul Sabatier rediscovered and included in his biography of Francis in 1894. I recently read an annotated version by John Sweeny: The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis: 120th Anniversary Edition. It is an inspiring and sobering book.
Francis died a sad, transcendent man. His prolonged stay in Syria after inserting himself into the battles of the Fifth Crusade, created a rumor he was dead and caused a brother to go find him. Upon his return, Francis found the “Cardinal Protector” of the Franciscans, Ugolino di Conti (later Pope Gregory IX) had imposed the Benedictine rule on Clare’s community and influenced the men Francis left in charge to loosen their vow of poverty and act more like other monks.
It was the first movement of the old spirit against the new. It was the effort of people who unconsciously, I am willing to assume, made religion an affair of rite and observance, instead of seeing it, like St. Francis, as the conquest of freedom that makes us free in all things. This is the freedom that leads each soul to obey the divine and mysterious power that the flowers in the field adore, that the birds of the air bless, that the symphony of the stars praises, and that Jesus of Nazareth called Abba, or, Father.
For the last five ears of his life Francis endured the incremental co-option of his brotherhood into the orders of the church, their freedom mediated by the Pope. By the time of Bonaventure, his life was a glorious but impractical relic. Sick, exhausted, and leaning into death, bearing the wounds of stigmata, Francis began to move toward his desired resting place at Portiuncula. He said good-bye to Mt. Verna and spent time recuperating at San Damiano with Clare’s community. As he gained strength there, he composed the famous “Canticle of the Sun.” Here are the SVD Brothers and their recent version. [link]
Just four years after Francis dictated his last will and died, Pope Gregory declared the Brothers Minor were not bound to observe it. His reinterpretation of the rule Francis never wanted to write, resulted in a divided order: the “Brothers of the Common Observance” and the “Spirituals.” The latter were disciplined and one was even killed for wanting to be a Francis-like Franciscan. Francis’ first disciple, Bernard of Quintavalle, went into hiding for two years as he was being hunted.
You may see your own experience in the lives of these saints. You may have tried on a simple faith and watched it eroded by the ways of the world. You may have been in a freedom-feeling community and watched it driven into the divisions of politics and power-seeking. I have experienced several versions of those ills. Next year I expect a book to come out that recounts the life and transition of a church I loved and led for decades. In some sense, I think it may be the same old story.
The Evangelicals, as a movement, began with a fervor for truth and a passion for evangelism. They made a huge difference in the world and continue to do so. But then Jerry Falwell (d. 2007) and others decided they needed to “take back” America. I think, as Sabatier might, they did that because America had taken them back. Their conformity to the ways to the empire led Falwell’s descendants to back the godless Trump to lead them. And their leaders have become more Trumpy ever since.
I keep asking Francis’ question these days, “Who are you Lord? And who am I?” I still burst into songs in the sunlight. I still feel my freedom in Christ and exercise it. I still care about and care for the poor. But am I just a part of the American story? Just another part of the news cycle? Did the powers succeed in taking over and ordering my world? Do I despair of an alternative now that an author will consign my past to history, into some reduction, like Bonaventure tried to do with Francis? We need to keep praying those questions.
Meanwhile, Jon Sobrino keeps getting disciplined by Rome for sticking with his decidedly anti-establishment teaching, saying things like,
[R]eality is known—in this case oppression and liberation, suffering and hope—in the disposition of taking charge of these realities in a praxis (en la disposición a
encargarse de ellas en una praxis), to carry these realities (a cargar con ellas)—running risks and the persecution that reality generates—and shouldering the weight of these realities (dejándose cargar por ellas)—accepting gratefully the kindness, generosity, and solidarity that there is in reality, and above all in the underside of history.
Jesus, Teresa, and Francis all built an alternative from the underside of history. No matter how many times those kind of people get rolled over, they are likely to rise again. Brother stone will cry out in praise or sister bird will sing the truth if the humans are silenced. But the Spirit incarnate in the body of Christ is hard to control for long. I don’t think the powers will keep it down. The creation will have to keep groaning as God awaits the next outburst of the light of the world from the Lord’s co-workers.